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Lake Tahoe’s danger hits home

by Sally J. Taylor

The sudden death of an experienced officer on Sunday has punctuated the dangerous side of Lake Tahoe.

“We’re trying to make sense out of this. Everybody is,” Douglas County Sheriff spokesman Sgt. Lance Modispatcher said. “Everyone thinks Tahoe looks so clean and inviting until they’re in it.”

Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Callahan, 54, died Sunday after he, partner Wes Rice and Zephyr Cove employee Chris Burke were tossed out of a dinghy by rough water into the frigid lake. Rice was able to climb out of the water with help from Burke, who was ferrying the officers from their patrol boat at the time of the accident.

Rice was treated for hypothermia.

The officers had just left the patrol boat after locking the life jackets on board and had not yet put on the jackets that were in the dinghy.

Modispatcher expects the department to re-evaluate its life jacket procedures.

“We’re deeply saddened (that this happened),” he said. “We’ll do our best to prevent it from happening in the future.”

The cold spring weather has kept the lake even more frigid than usual.

At least one officer who responded to the scene was also hit by the cold when he spotted Callahan on the bottom and dove into the lake in an unsuccessful rescue attempt.

Deputy Brian Johnson, who Modispatcher described as very young, in very good shape and dressed-down for swimming, had to be helped from the water.

“Callahan was older and fully clothed with his boots and gun belt on,” he said.

Tahoe-Douglas Fire Department Captain Steve Waterer pulled Callahan from the water about 15 minutes after the incident.

Waterer, who has 20 years with the department and is experienced in water lifesaving and boat rescues, warned people about going suddenly into the water.

“You hit the cold all of a sudden and you can’t breath,” said Waterer. Though he did not know if it applied in this case, he added “I believe that’s how a lot of drownings occur. It’s cold enough to take your breath away and if you can’t breath, you can’t swim.”

When Callahan was pulled from the water, he had no pulse and doctors were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead at Barton Memorial Hospital where the preliminary cause of death was listed as drowning resulting from hypothermia. The El Dorado County Coroner is expected to perform an autopsy today.

The accident is under investigation by the Nevada Department of Fish & Game.

Callahan was a retired customs agent who had begun his third summer as a Douglas County boat patrolman this weekend, Modispatcher said. He is survived by his wife and three children.

“We’ll really miss Ed. Though he was seasonal, he was one of us,” Modispatcher said. “You could catch him at the worst time and he’d have a smile on his face.”

Funeral services are scheduled Friday in Hemet, Calif.

A local memorial service is tentatively scheduled June 1, with details to be finalized.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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